On January 5th 2014, Pope Francis announced to an audience of tens of thousands his plans to embark on a “pilgrimage of prayer” to the Holy Land, the purpose of which was to improve relations with other Christians. On May 21st, just days before he left to the Middle East, he addressed a crowd of 50,000, gathered at St. Peter’s Square, emphasizing that the purpose of his trip would be “purely religious”.
However what is heard by the crowd at St. Peter’s square is different than the goings on inside the inner chambers of the Vatican. And it appears that when it comes to the “Holy Land”, the Pope has a great deal of difficulty separating religious, political and diplomatic ambitions and agendas.
A Political Pilgrimage with Some Prayer Thrown in For Good Measure
Although there were plenty of prayers during the Pope’s trip, his pilgrimage was politically loaded. In true diplomatic fashion, Pope Francis spent a significant portion of his time engaged in friendly head butting with heads of state and heads of non-states, and in talking to the walls, including a “surprise” moment of prayer and supreme photo op at a security barrier graced with freshly painted “Free Palestine” graffiti.
While Israel reacted with alarm to the unscheduled visit and propaganda coup for the Palestinians, everyone should have seen this coming.
A full two months before the Pope arrived, the toxic mix of agendas became evident when, on March 2014, the official programme of the Pilgrimage of Pope Francis to the Holy Land was reported by Vatican Radio and released at a Press Conference at the offices of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was relayed that, “The Holy Father will visit three countries: Jordan, the State of Palestine, and Israel. The Pope’s schedule included a “COURTESY VISIT TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE STATE OF PALESTINE” as well as a “FAREWELL FROM THE STATE OF PALESTINE”.
Apparently Israel’s Foreign and Tourism Ministries were not too pleased with the Vatican’s terminology and they applied some virtual white-out to their version of Pope’s schedule, erasing “the State of Palestine”. However, there wasn’t much they could do to erase the stain of the Pope’s scheduled “VISIT TO THE GRAND MUFTI OF JERUSALEM in the building of the Great Council on the Esplanade of the Mosques.” The Mufti is not one to mince words and has been condemned in the international arena for the type of anti-Semitic vitriol he spews at the Jewish people.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone following the Vatican’s Mid-East policy. As far back as January 2013, Vatican Insider (La Stampa) ran headlines declaring The Holy See negotiates with the “State of Palestine”.
Pro-Israel Pundits Disturbed by Pope’s Actions
A good number of prominent and respected Zionist leaders and journalists were outspoken in their criticism of the Pope’s agenda during his visit and expressed concern about Vatican designs for the Jewish state.
Interfaith Rabbis and Papal Knights Continue to Sing the Pope’s Praises
In startling contrast to the grim and alarming assessments cited above, those Jewish leaders and personalities involved in interfaith ventures with the Vatican, or who have a special relationship with the Pope, offered up heady predications and commentary. Yet even they acknowledged a definite political angle to the Pope’s “purely religious” pilgrimage.
CBS News quoted Rabbi David Rosen, who serves as the international director for interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee:
“And everyone wants a piece of the pope. Every word Francis says will be analyzed for political and religious implications. Rabbi David Rosen says he only needs to utter one sentence to appease Jews. ‘To hear the pope express regret for the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism would have an enormously powerful effect upon Israeli Jewish society, ‘Rosen told Pizzey.”
The National Catholic Register cited comments by Gary Krupp, whose foundation “works to a foster strong partnership between the Vatican and the State of Israel” and “has sought to deconstruct negative stereotypes” of Pius Xll:
“Gary Krupp, the Jewish leader of the nonsectarian Pave the Way Foundation, which has been active in promoting peace, understanding and mutual respect between Israelis and Palestinians, said Rabbi Skorka will play a key role accompanying the Pope. Not only will the rabbi’s friendship be a witness to peace, but it will also “provide insight” to the Pope as he navigates through the troubled waters of Israeli-Palestinian politics.”
It should be noted that both Rabbi Rosen and Gary Krupp have an extra-special relationship with the Vatican and are among a handful of Jewish recipients who have received Papal Knighthood which includes being decorated as Knight Commanders of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great.
In a pre-pilgrimage article, The Algemeiner turned to Eugene Korn, the Jerusalem-based director of Rabbi Riskin’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), for his take on things:
“The Vatican tries to take a neutral position on many of the political controversies in the region…”
“[There] is a sense of enormous comfort between the Church and Israel,” CJCUC’s Korn said. “In a certain sense, the relationship is the best it is has ever been, both on a formal and informal level.”
And in a post pilgrimage article in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Avraham Skorka, who accompanied the Pope on his visit, attempted to rectify the damage done:
“There was an “undoubted political dimension” to his visits to the security barrier and to the memorial, but the essence was “an opportunity for prayer to God to bless man and erase violence and hatred from the midst of human reality,” he said.”
Theological Dialogue and Other Sore Points
King David wasn’t the only one likely turning over in his grave during this pilgrimage. The Pope’s urging for theological dialogue between Jews and Christian would have surely upset the late Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who in response to Vatican overtures, formulated a treatise in 1964, which is widely interpreted within Orthodox Jewish circles to be a halachic psak proscribing interfaith theological encounters. The treatise continues to guide and influence a large proportion of Torah observant scholars and rabbinic authorizes till today.
Just days prior to the Pope’s visit, Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper ran a headline declaring, “Rome’s chief rabbi says Jews 'have nothing to discuss' with Vatican”. Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni understood the necessity to discuss” important issues” but cautioned against theological dialogue and went as far as to state, “from the theological point of view, there is nothing to discuss.”
It seems Italy’s Jewish community is nervous because according to the Ha’aretz article:
“The previous pope, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), a guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, was believed to be ill-disposed toward extending interfaith dialogue to the realm of doctrine. But his successor is perceived as being more open-minded theologically. Francis himself has said the dialogue between Christians and Jews must have “a theological foundation” and go “beyond mutual respect and appreciation”.”
Indeed this seemed to be the case when Pope Francis met with Israel’s Chief Rabbis David Lau and Shlomo Amar. According to the Atlantic:
“[Pope Francis] spoke of dialogue and kinship, but he emphasized the shared theological heritage of Jews and Christians. ”On the part of Catholics, there is a clear intention to reflect deeply on the significance of the Jewish roots of our own faith," Francis said. "I trust that, with your help, on the part of Jews too, there will be a continued and even growing interest in knowledge of Christianity, also in this holy land to which Christians trace their origins”.”
As JewishIsrael noted is a prior report, Pope Francis seems to be reviving the evangelistic calling of the Catholic Church. He repeatedly and consistently brings up the theme of missionary work in his public appearances. This is certainly something the Jewish community should keep their eye on.
Declaring Ownership of the Room Above the Tomb of King David
In an interview on Al Jazeera television, Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen made a bold attempt to expose the Vatican agenda. The segment, Promoting peace or papal politics?, also featured a political columnist from Rome, as well as the media advisor to the Catholic Church in Jerusalem, Wadie Abu Nasser. HaKohen managed to open up a can of worms by broaching the taboo topics of missionary activity, King David’s tomb and even idolatry.
Referring to the room above the Tomb of King David, Abu Nasser made the following claim:
“I know that the Franciscan Friars bought the place several centuries ago and the place was confiscated from them. The fact that it was confiscated doesn’t mean that it should be the property of the confiscator or the successor of the confiscator.” Abu Nasser went on to speak of the rights of Christians to pray in their holy shrines and declared “the Last Supper Room is one of our most important shrines in the holy city of Jerusalem.”
That claim was reiterated by “Custodian of the Holy Land” Friar Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in his address to Pope Francis in the Cenacle, where Catholic Mass was held as the “last major event of the Pope’s three-day pilgrimage”:
“The chronicles tell us that the Cenacle was purchased to be given to the Franciscans in 1333; the friars go to the Holy Sepulcher for solemn celebration of the sung mass and the Divine Office. Saint Francis’s openness to missionary evangelization led the friars to the Land of our redemption, and the Church confirmed our mission as guardians of the Holy Places.
As you can see, there is no basilica here to protect the place where Jesus celebrated his final Pascua, where he prayed for his own, where – resurrected – he appeared to bestow Peace, where the Spirit descended on the Apostles as they were united in prayer with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Although an exception has been made today, the Eucharist is not celebrated here in this room where Jesus broke the bread and had his disciples drink from the chalice of the new wine, giving them the mission to repeat his own words and gestures, making his presence among us real for all time.
This site is one of the most wounded in all the Holy Land…”
The Cenacle above the Tomb of Kind David is very much on the mind and on the agenda of the Catholic Church. It should be remembered that a year ago the Franciscans issued a press release claiming they had received administrative control of the room and the rights to worship there.
Regardless of Israeli government denials, this is an issue that will not go away any time soon.
No Accident, No Surprises: Beware of the Ides of June 2014
The press is billing this as “an unexpected invitation”, with the Pope claiming, “the day’s focus will be prayer, and not politics.”
But June 2014 also marks another significant event at the Vatican, which has already been scheduled for several months now . According to a joint communique issued last February by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Vatican , the Israeli team negotiating property and tax issues with the Vatican are scheduled to meet with their counterparts in Vatican City in June 2014. The bi-lateral negotiations have reportedly made great progress and according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry there are “few remaining issues” left. One should not be surprised if such an impressive group is being assembled for some type of politically-loaded signing ceremony, rather than a moment of prayer.
Beware of Symbols and Symbolic Gestures
For some, Israel giving Rome the gift of a menorah as a gesture of peace and goodwill, rather than have the menorah seized in a state of slavery and slaughter as happened 2000 years ago, is seen as being indicative of a new and peaceful era in Vatican-Israel relations. Others find the imagery to be a disturbing reminder that the nation of Israel needs to protect and preserve our national treasures and not compromise our principles, faith and property in an episode of misguided ecumenical euphoria.
The facts on the ground and the Pope’s symbolic and politically-loaded gestures and maneuvering indicate that we need to heed the words of Caroline Glick:
“Israelis and Jews around the world need to be aware of what is happening. Francis is leading the Catholic Church in a distressingly anti-Jewish direction.”
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